Ninjas + Hemingway: Writing for User Interfaces

The writing in your user interface is an opportunity to encourage people to use your product. Writing in interfaces includes everything from the words in an in-app setup tutorial to a website's navigation menu. Because there is both technical complexity and high stakes for user failure, careful language is key to getting mass audiences to adopt secure communication tools.

Good writing for an interface, also called user-experience (UX) copywriting, does two things:

  1. it explains how things work, and
  2. it creates an emotional reaction with the user.

Explanations in language people understand

Explaining how things work isn't straightforward. Many secure communication apps struggle with conveying too much technical information to an overwhelmed user who, for example, doesn't care about the difference between DSA and RSA keys. Careful UX copywriting avoids this pitfall.

Even a simple explanation can create a negative emotional reaction when it sounds like jargon to a general audience. Jargon is off-putting, whether it's Silicon Valley buzzwords or bureaucratic govermentese, because it conveys that the service is untrustworthy. To stamp out jargon, Mail Chimp's Content Style Guide on GitHub includes this list of words to avoid using. They've flagged a bunch of corporate-speak words as inappropriate. Mail Chimp is a sales tool for sending customized email and newsletters, so "Incentivizing your ninjas to crush it!" could be a reasonable explanation of their value to their customers who are marketing professionals, but their writing is careful to use vocabulary that is accessible to a broader audience.

"Hash"? "Fingerprint"? Tweet us @simplysecureorg with your nominations of technical security terms to avoid.

Reducing the need for support

With good UX copywriting directly in the interface, the need for training and other kinds of support decreases. Consider this excerpt from 18F's writing guide for U.S. Government websites:

"FAQs are bad. We don't like them. If you write content by starting with user needs, you won't need to use FAQs. … If you're thinking about adding FAQs, consider reviewing the content on your website that is generating questions and think about how you can change the content or design to answer the question — or provide an answer in context to prevent people from visiting an additional webpage to find the answer." – 18F Content Guide

Similarly, the Gov.UK writing guide does a good job of explaining how to make complex information accessible to a broad audience. Just as a piece of consumer software must be understandable to many types of users to be successful, UK government publications must reach and be useful to a broad spectrum of readers, from English-language learners, to populations with low levels of literacy, and citizens with a range of accessibility challenges.

With good UX copywriting directly in the interface, the need for training and other kinds of support decreases.

Resources for UX copywriting

In addition to complete style guides, here are some practical tips:

My favorite suggestion (which makes both lists) is to be make your writing shorter. To trim excess words, try the Hemingway App. It was named after the writer whose work was famous for its short, clear sentences.

Image: Screenshot from Hemingway App, showing dynamic highlighting as you type.
Image: Screenshot from Hemingway App, showing dynamic highlighting as you type.

Related

Quick Tool Feedback

Designing alongside your users will make your tools respond best to their needs. We'll show you how to get instant input from your users. From our video series, Design Spots.

How to Name Your App

Naming software is hard because the name needs to convey a lot of meaning about what the program does to an unfamiliar audience, and do it all using only a word or short phrase. You want something memorable and easy to say – which becomes more complex when designing with a global audience in mind. Android's recently-announced competition to name the latest operating system has been met with skepticism. The accompanying parody video pokes fun at naming as an unskilled and silly exercise.

Design Thinking

The latest Harvard Business Review (paywall, but with limited free content) has two articles about design thinking that are relevant for teams working on security and privacy: Design for Action by Tim Brown and Roger Martin and Design Thinking Comes of Age by Jon Kolko. These articles describe how design thinking has moved beyond creating tangible products and on to supporting collaborative design of complex systems. They give an overview of design thinking’s evolution, from its roots in Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial, through Richard Buchanan’s Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, and into addressing challenges for domains far outside areas historically considered “design.